Dealing with arthritis in senior horses
Over the past couple of decades improved management, nutrition, and veterinary care have contributed to increase longevity in today’s horse population. It is not unusual to hear of horses living well into their thirties. As horses age, the wear and tear of a lifetime of activity takes its toll on joints, leading to the development of arthritis. While there is no cure for arthritis, there are ways we can keep older horses more comfortable.
What is arthritis and why are older horses more susceptible?
Arthritis is a degeneration of the articular surfaces of the joint caused by inflammation. It can occur in horses of any age but is more commonly found in older horses. Inflammation caused by constant wear and tear over time leads to an erosion of joint structures. Older horses tend to lose some of the elasticity in their tendons and ligaments, and aging leads to increased cell death in fibrous tissues, causing a thinning of the joint cartilage.
Such changes reduce your horse’s natural shock absorbing capabilities and result in increased trauma to the joint. This trauma results in joint inflammation. Conformation and use can play a role in changing the shape of the joint. The development of uneven joint surfaces in older joints leads to misalignments and pressure points within the joint where inflammation is amplified. Past joint injuries and infections can also predispose a horse to developing arthritis.
The key to keeping arthritis under control is early detection and quick action to decrease damaging inflammation.
Symptoms to watch for:
- Subtle changes in the way your horse moves, such as shortening of stride, hollowing of the back, or raising of the head
- Unwillingness to perform tasks that came easy in the past
- Stiffness that goes away as your horse warms up
- Puffiness around a joint
- Warmth or pain in the area of a joint
Determine the extent of the problem.
First and foremost, if your horse is showing any of the above signs contact your veterinarian and have him or her give your horse a complete physical to rule out other possible problems. If your horse is developing arthritis, your vet will help you pinpoint the affected joints and determine the severity of the problem. This will help tremendously when developing a treatment plan.
Ways you can help
- Feed a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory in nature and low in omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory. In other words, feed more fiber (hay and grass) and fats rich in omega-3s and less grains and oils high in omega-6. The ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in the total diet should be around 3:1 to 5:1. Research has shown that arthritic horses supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids had reduced levels of inflammation, exhibited less pain, and had longer stride length.
- Incorporate a complete joint supplement into your horse’s diet. A high-quality joint supplement should contain effective levels of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, key nutrients necessary for maintenance of normal joint function. Glucosamine is used as a substrate for certain components of the cartilage matrix, while chondroitin sulfate plays an important role in controlling the enzymes associated with inflammation and tissue destruction. Numerous studies have documented the benefits of combining these two ingredients to joint health. Also look for the ingredient hyaluronic acid that supports and nourishes the synovial fluid that coats and protects joint surfaces. Manganese is an important cofactor in the formation of the cartilage matrix and synthesis of connective tissue, and can be helpful in supporting a healthy joint. Beware of herbal ingredients that are untested and unregulated: their supportive usefulness is undocumented and they can vary in strength and composition.
- Provide adequate natural vitamin E to support a strong immune system, healthy muscle, and nerve tissues. For older horses that are hanging out, or in light work, the recommended level of natural vitamin E in the diet is 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day. For horses that are working harder or are otherwise stressed, the recommended level is 3,000 to 5,000 IU per day. This is particularly important in older horses that are not able to graze on good pasture for a large portion of the day or during the winter months when green grass is not available.
- Protect your horse’s digestive tract. When NSAIDs are prescribed by your veterinarian, discuss the addition of a product that will protect the stomach from developing ulcerations.
- Keep your horse at a healthy weight. Excess weight puts unnecessary strain on joints and muscles. Overweight horses are less agile and more likely to take a bad step, injuring themselves. Overweight horses can develop a metabolic syndrome that leads to systemic inflammatory and increases the risk of arthritis. Overly thin horses may lack the muscle strength needed to support proper joint function. Undernourished bones and soft tissue and joints tend to be weak and easily damaged. Poor immune systems can’t fight off the damaging effects of inflammation.
- Keep feet properly trimmed. A well-balanced hoof absorbs concussive forces more effectively, reducing wear and tear on joints. Long toes, cracked and uneven hoof surfaces increase joint stress.
- Keep your horse moving. Exercise is good for older horses. It increases circulation, which nourishes the joint, and removes damaging waste products. It strengthens muscles and tendons and increases agility that reduces wear and tear on the joint and protects against injury. Exercise should be appropriate for your horse’s age and fitness level. Work with your veterinarian to determine the best exercise program for your horse. Start any new exercise program slowly and watch for signs of discomfort or injury, especially in horses that have been retired.
- Monitor the footing when turning out and riding. The optimal footing would be soft and supportive. Steer clear of footing that is either too hard or too soft
- Be sure to warm up and stretch your horse before exercising. Stretching warms up muscles and tendons, breaks down adhesions, and increases circulation. It greatly reduces the incidence of injury and joint trauma.
- Incorporate passive range of motion exercise into your horse’s daily schedule. Research has shown that passive exercise will increase range of motion by reducing scar tissue development and encouraging cartilage and soft tissue healing.
- Work with your veterinarian. It is critical to develop a treatment plan to decrease joint inflammation and reduce the damage it causes. There are many drugs on the market today to choose from and your vet will know what is best for your horse.
As more and more of us enjoy the company of our horses into old age, it is imperative to address the problems that accompany aging in an appropriate manner. Paying close attention to how our horse feels and making the necessary adjustments in their diet and management ensures that our older horses are happy, healthy and sound well into their senior years.
Article written by KPP staff.
Copyright (C) 2012 Kentucky Performance Products, LLC. All rights reserved.
Article sponsored by Contribute; supports optimal omega-3 fatty acid balance.
When health issues arise, always seek the advice of a licensed veterinarian who can help you choose the correct course of action for your horse. Supplements are intended to maintain healthy systems and support recovery and healing. They are not intended to treat or cure illness or injury.
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Since 1998, Kentucky Performance Products has simplified a horse owner’s search for research-proven nutritional horse supplements that meet the challenges facing modern horses. KPP horse supplements target specific nutritional needs and are formulated to complement today’s feeds, thus safeguarding against over-supplementation. Each product is scientifically formulated and made with high-quality ingredients at certified manufacturing facilities. Kentucky Performance Products is proud to offer a quality assurance promise backed by a money-back guarantee. Kentucky Performance Products brings you horse supplements you can count on because the horse that matters to you, matters to us.